Ah! fearless on many a day for us,
They stood in front of the fray for us,
And held the foeman at bay for us;
And tears should fall Fore’er o’er all
Who fell while wearing the Gray for us.
— Father Abram Joseph Ryan, Confederate Priest
Across the nation are buried the remains of unknown Civil War soldiers. For most of those who fought for the Union, their remains, whether known or unknown, lie in National Military Cemeteries. But, for the Confederates, that is not the case. During the many battles of the Civil War, deceased soldiers of both the Union and Confederate armies were most often hastily buried where they fell. Though commanders on both sides were required to keep records of those who died, as well as burial site locations, this was often difficult due to lack of procedures, critical battle situations, and the fact that soldiers on neither side were required to carry some form of identification. As a result, nearly half of the Union dead, and far more Confederate remains would never be identified.
Starting in 1862, the Union began to establish cemeteries for those fighting on behalf of the United States, and bodies began to be moved from where they had fallen. However, this did not occur in earnest until the late 1860s, when the Reburial Corps began to move the remains of Union soldiers to National Cemeteries. When they came upon Confederate bodies, they were buried where they were found. Later, private organizations in the South assumed responsibility for Confederate reburials. Several Confederate cemeteries were established over time; but, the vast majority of the remains of the Confederate soldiers were left where they were initially buried. This resulted in hundreds of small cemeteries across the country that are filled with unknown Confederate troops. Small or large, these sacred places are much revered in the South, where, along with their remains, were these brave soldiers’ hearts, homes, and families.
Most of these Confederate cemeteries are located near battlefield sites. During Legends’ visits, all have touched this writer in some way; but, none had the effect like the silent monuments of 13 Confederate soldiers who lie beneath the shady woods of the old Natchez Trace.
Who were these men, and why are they buried here? There were no battles that took place in the immediate vicinity. Perhaps this is why these graves are so sad. No one knows who they are, how they died, why they’re buried here, or who buried them. Were they some of Shiloh’s or Corinth’s wounded who retreated here in 1862 to die beside the Natchez Trace? Did they serve under the daring General Nathan Forrest, who passed this way in 1864? Were they guarding the Tupelo headquarters of J.B. Hood’s Army of Tennessee near the end of the Civil War? Perhaps they were none of the above; but rather, they died of lingering hunger, poverty, or one of the many diseases that raged throughout the army camps.
Worse, we might imagine that they died after the South had surrendered and they were making their way home along the Old Trace. Unlike Union soldiers who were well fed, given new uniforms, and were aided by government transportation in making their way home, the Confederate soldier was left to find his way as best as he could.
Most had no money, as they hadn’t been paid in months; the railroad system had been annihilated in the South, and the Confederate Government had no demobilization plans. Of those who survived the bloody rebellion, the vast majority returned to their homes, walking, often for hundreds or thousands of miles, begging for food and a place to stay along the way. Most were unarmed, ragged, and dirty, and had many didn’t even have shoes.
In some areas, returning Rebels had to be wary of Union bushwhackers and guerillas who still operated. In most cases, the victorious Union soldiers treated the returning Confederates in a civil manner; however, some would harass the weary southerners, and sometimes, the more vicious, would even kill them. Was this the case of the men who lie in these mysterious graves?
We will never know.
It is also unknown as to when their bodies were found or who buried them. Were they found by the Union Reburial Corps and interred where they lay, or perhaps by local farmers? It’s possible that their names were on the original markers; but, these disappeared long ago. In 1940, U.S. Senator, and prior Mississippi Governor Theodore Bilbo, arranged for marble headstones to be established at the graves of these unknown soldiers. However, the monuments were later stolen. Today, the graves are adorned again with headstones erected by the National Park Service.
It is evident that we are not the only ones that this mysterious old cemetery has touched. Each grave sports both an American and Confederate flag, flowers, and numerous small tributes and coins that lay atop the headstones. All of these acknowledgments are a mark of respect for the soldier whose sacrifice will not be forgotten. The coins, however, have specific meanings. Generally, a coin left on a headstone signifies that the gravesite has been visited and respects have been paid. Specifically, the domination of the coins also have meanings. Leaving a penny at the grave means simply that you visited; a nickel indicates that you and the deceased trained at boot camp together, while a dime means you served with him in some capacity. By leaving a quarter at the grave, you are telling the family that you were with the soldier when he was killed. The coins are eventually collected, and the funds are used to maintain the cemetery or in paying burial costs for indigent veterans. Other tributes include small bits of jewelry and stacked stones, which also denotes respect as well as good wishes.
Most estimates have determined that some 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, a number that exceeds the nation’s loss in all its other wars, from the American Revolution through Vietnam. Of these, more than 360,000 Union soldiers died in battle or of disease. For the South, about 260,000. Though the number of Confederate dead are less than the Union, the United States had double the number of troops. Of all of the Union troops, only about 58% of them could ever be identified when they were re-interred. For the South, the percentage of unknown soldiers is higher.
With more than half of her men — sons, husbands, and fathers never returning home, the people of the South were mourning, wondering, and trying valiantly to find their men. More than 130,000 loved ones and friends would never know the fate of their missing soldier. Wait, wonder, speculate, and, no doubt, always imagining the worst, they would never have closure.
This mystery of who these men were, why they were on the Old Trace, and how they died is the cause of the prevailing sadness behind these lonely 13 graves. There are unknown soldiers buried in mass graves at Shiloh, Tennessee; at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, at the small cemetery in Iuka, Mississippi; but at least those men were known to have died in battle, fighting for their beliefs. Not so, for those silent graves along the Natchez Trace.
These quiet monuments face back toward the Old Natchez Trace so that any who should pass by might read them and give silent recognition.
The small cemetery can be found at milepost 269.4 north of Tupelo, Mississippi.